The Local Ingredient: Cooking ideas for the bay scallop

Bushel of Scallops. - Photo by Michael Cummo

In 16 years of cooking bay scallops this way and that each fall, one of my favorite scallop dishes remains the very first I tried on the Island, prepared by Joe DaSilva when he was the chef at the long-closed Standby Café in Oak Bluffs.

It was comprised of only four main ingredients — basil, lemon, butternut squash, and seared scallops — and they are a winning combination. Each scallop season I re-create it, and it’s still the first dish I make.

To quickly sear bay scallops, keep a couple of things in mind: Dry them well on paper towels, and use a thick skillet, such as cast-iron or All-Clad. Heat the pan well before adding a bit of olive oil and butter (for flavor), and don’t crowd the pan, so the scallops get a nice sear with a golden-brown crust. This takes only 1 to 2 minutes a side, certainly a cooking plus.

There are plenty of other ideas to try as well and now’s the time, as the commercial season opens Nov. 2 in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, where most of the Island’s scallops come from.

Choose one of the flavors or ingredients that pair well with scallops and make your own creation. Some tasty complements are apples, bacon, brandy, brown butter, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cilantro, coconut milk, capers, corn, curry, garlic, fennel, leeks, mushrooms, pineapple, pomegranate, saffron, tomatoes, turnips, and vinegars such as balsamic or sherry. Check out other ideas in “The Flavor Bible,” a go-to book about good food combinations.

Any sauce with citrus — orange, lemon, lime or a combination of all three — works nicely to match the richness of the scallops: even grapefruit, as suggested by Robin Forte, formerly of the Inn at Blueberry Hill restaurant and current Harvest of the Month chef for Island Grown Schools. Her grapefruit beurre blanc sauce for seared scallops is a reduction of white wine and shallots to which fresh grapefruit juice is added and then reduced again. Finally, some butter is whisked in. Serve over a melted leek risotto — a nice dinner for guests.

In local cookbooks, Rosewater’s Tina Miller, author of “Vineyard Harvest,” has a traditional gratin of bay scallops with herbs and breadcrumbs. In the “Beetlebung Farm Cookbook,” Chef Chris Fischer suggests freshly shucked scallops crudo-style (uncooked) with a bit of jalapeño, lemon zest, and fennel. For seared scallops, he shares a “crack rice” and scallop combination flavored with bacon or pancetta, coriander (dried and fresh), crushed red pepper, and a touch of lemon juice.

Mystery writer Philip Craig and his wife Shirley featured six recipes for bay scallops, including the Ritz Scallop dish made famous by his main character J.W. Jackson, in their Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook “Delish!” It’s pretty much crushed Ritz and scallops, with melted butter poured over and baked. “Simple and unfailingly delicious,” says Mrs. Craig.

Scallops, which are pricey, also go a long way served over pasta, with a clam and linguine–type recipe substituting scallops. I also enjoy making a pasta sauce for scallops with melted leeks, clam broth, and a touch of cream and Parmesan.

As you sit down to enjoy your scallop dish of choice, give thanks to the folks who help to keep this local industry thriving. The Vineyard is one of the few places to still have wild bay scallops, which are no longer found in many other places along the East Coast because of environmental ravages.

Last year, the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group under Rick Karney released about 20 million scallop seeds into Vineyard waters, as they have done for the past 37 years. Spawned from wild scallops, fertilized and grown each year at the Oak Bluffs hatchery, the seeds are distributed to shellfish wardens in participating towns overseeing major ponds and harbors on the Island where scallops are fished: Cape Pogue, the outside of Edgartown Harbor, Sengekontacket Pond, the Vineyard Haven harbor and lagoon, and Menemsha Pond. Mr. Karney says their labor-intensive process augments the numbers of scallops naturally residing in the public ponds and is meant to increase the number of scallops available for harvest by family and commercial fishers.

“The only places seeing dependable commercial harvests in recent years are the Vineyard, Nantucket, and the East End of Long Island,” notes Mr. Karney. So let’s rejoice in our good fortune and celebrate scallops the best way we can — most deliciously.

Scallops with Butternut Squash and Basil Sauce

Serves 3

This was inspired by a dish prepared by Chef Joe DaSilva when he was cooking at the Standby Café. He sometimes augmented the dish with roasted diced beets.

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 bunch (or 2.5 oz. container) of fresh basil leaves, rinsed (about 1 cup)
Olive oil
1 pound fresh bay scallops, muscle removed, rinsed and dried
Squeeze of lemon

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, and cook squash for about 20 minutes until tender. Drain water. Mash squash with a potato masher. Add butter, salt, and pepper to taste. While butternut squash is cooking, make the basil sauce and prep the scallops: Remove the small muscle on the side of the scallops, rinse well and dry.

To make the sauce, bring a small pot of water to boil. Add the basil leaves and boil for 30 seconds (this keeps the sauce bright green). Drain and pat dry with a paper towel. Add blanched basil to a blender with ½ cup olive oil, enough to blend easily. Blend until thoroughly mixed, about 1 minute. Strain in a fine-meshed strainer. Season with a pinch of salt.

To cook scallops, heat one or two sauté pans over medium-high heat. Add butter and olive oil to coat. Sear scallops on one side, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn and sear the other side, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and a few drops of lemon juice.

Arrange the butternut squash on a large platter. Place the scallops around. Add a squeeze of lemon to the basil sauce and drizzle or spoon around, not on, the scallops.